Then vs. Now: The History of Braces + Orthodontics

Wires have been found on the teeth of ancient remains.

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Braces aren’t just a cosmetic procedure for a straighter smile. There’s evidence that ancient civilizations understood that a good bite was biologically useful to help survival. In fact, researchers have even found wires on the teeth of ancient remains.

Still, the modern practice of orthodontics developed much more recently. Surprisingly, many of the tools used in orthodontics (like those dreaded rubber bands) have actually been in use for over a century.

The Early Foundation of Orthodontics

Prior to the 1700s, pulling teeth was the most common way to improve someone's bite. It could help alignment by reducing crowding. However, dentists weren’t really “a thing” yet, so you often just went to a barber or some other tradesman. Then, they would pull the tooth without anesthesia, since anesthesia wasn’t used until the 1800s.

Still, some important figures were laying the groundwork for dentistry and orthodontics. Most notably, in the 1500s, Leonardo da Vinci was the first to recognize and describe tooth form. Furthermore, he noted that the teeth all worked in tandem with nearby teeth, so a good bite required the upper and lower jaw to align.

Orthodontics in the 18th and 19th Centuries

The 1700s brought major advancements in orthodontics. Pierre Fauchard, or the “Father of Modern Dentistry,” published the groundbreaking book, The Surgeon Dentist, A Treatise on the Teeth, which helped develop dentistry as a branch of medicine. His book contained a full chapter on ways to straighten the teeth. In fact, he created one of the first orthodontic devices: the Bandalette, which helped to expand the arch of the mouth.

However, it was the 19th century that really pushed orthodontics forward. Surprisingly, many of the strategies and devices still used in orthodontics were invented at this time.

In 1840, JS Gunnell introduced the chin strap, an early predecessor for what you now know as “headgear.” The chin strap helps treat mandibular protrusion, which is a fancy way of saying your upper or lower jaw is sticking out more than it should.

In 1871, molar bands joined the dentist's toolbox to help space out teeth. These are metal bands that hug the molars to reduce crowding. Orthodontists still use molar bands today, and they have not changed much too much.

In 1893, Henry A. Baker introduced the device that millions of teens would loathe for decades to come: elastic bands. Officially known as “Baker’s anchorage,” these elastic bands connect braces on the top teeth with braces on the bottom teeth. Basically, they encourage the jaws to shift toward better alignment. While they’re not fun to wear, they’re very effective.

Another major figure at this time was John Nutting Farrar, or the “Father of American Orthodontics.” In 1888, he published a book, Irregularities of the Teeth and Their Correction, which was the first book dedicated solely to orthodontics. He advocated for moving the teeth a little bit at a time at spaced-out intervals. Orthodontists still use this method today, and it's why people have to visit their orthodontist regularly to get their braces adjusted.

Modern Orthodontics

Edward H. Angle opened the first school of orthodontics in 1900: the Angle School of Orthodontics in St. Louis. Modern orthodontists continue to use many of Angle’s classifications for diagnosing irregularities in the teeth (even if the treatments for them have changed over time).

A few big changes came in the 20th century. Charles A. Hawley invented the retainer in 1908, and Calvin Case introduced lighter, thinner wires for braces in 1917. In the 1970s, orthodontists made the switch to stainless steel for braces. Before that, they had used a variety of expensive or cumbersome materials, including wood, ivory, silver, and gold.

Of course, the biggest change to orthodontics is “Invisalign” braces. While orthodontists introduced these to the public in 2000, the dentist H.D. Kessling actually proposed the idea for plastic tray devices way back in 1945.

Surprisingly, you can thank two business students (with zero years of dentistry training) for the modern “invisible” braces: Zia Chishti and Kelsey Wirth. Their invention revolutionized orthodontics. Not only do users like the appearance of the invisible plastic trays, but dentists and orthodontists love that the removable plastic trays allow for better oral hygiene. Still, traditional braces with brackets remain a common "accessory" for teens and adults.

Speaking of oral hygiene, that’s come a long way, too. Long before researchers discovered plaque, ancient civilizations blamed tooth decay on “tooth worms” (yuck). Find out the evolution of oral hygiene here.